By now millions of Americans have seen Sen. Marco Rubio’s televised response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which the parched politician nervously reaches for a bottle of water mid-speech.
But what struck me wasn’t his awkward rebuttal. Rather, what I was left wondering was why does the GOP think Rubio can help the party’s reputation with Latinos?
Clearly, Rubio is smart, ambitious and bilingual. But he’s hardly a household name outside of Florida among Latinos, the majority of whom are of Mexican origin, according to Census data.
In fact, a December 2011 poll by the Pew Research Hispanic Center found that more than half of Latinos registered voters in the U.S. said they had never heard of Rubio when asked what they thought of the senator.
While I suspect that changed after his mid-speech swig of water, his blueprint for immigration reform may also rankle some Latinos. Rubio has repeatedly argued in favor of legalizing the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already living in the United States, but only after those who are illegally in the country go to the back of the line and wait their turn for a green card.
Yet Rubio, who is helping fashion a bipartisan plan, hasn’t said anything about reforming a decades-old program that allows Cubans to jump to the front of the line. Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, those who set foot on U.S. territory are allowed to remain in the country and are put on a fast track to legalization, earning a green card after about 366 days.
No other immigrants are afforded that special status, not even those who come from countries with repressive governments such as Myanmar, Syria or China. Instead, those seeking asylum are often detained for months and required to demonstrate that they have credible fear of persecution.
Rubio’s stance on immigration is certainly a welcome change from Mitt Romney’s self-deportation strategy. But if the GOP is truly sincere about welcoming Latino voters to the party, it should stop worrying about the messenger and instead focus on the message.